Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium will host baseball/softball events during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. The stadium is home to the Fukushima Hopes baseball team, led by head coach Akinori Iwamura, who used to play in the Major League.
After playing in the United States, Iwamura returned to Japan and played in the Nippon Professional Baseball League, eventually moving to Fukushima as a Hopes player and manager. As a retired player and now a full-time manager, Iwamura is working hard to demonstrate the appeal of baseball and sport from Fukushima to all corners of Japan as well as to the world.
Iwamura has experience playing professional sport overseas, but he has never had any connection with Fukushima. We asked Iwamura about the charm of Fukushima Prefecture and the role he wishes to play during the Tokyo 2020 Games through Fukushima and sports.
Right after returning to Japan, the Tohoku region was struck by a huge earthquake. Iwamura says his experience as a victim led to his current activities.
You experienced the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 after returning to Japan and playing for a team based in Miyagi Prefecture. How did that affect you and the activities you are involved in now?
When the earthquake struck, our team was on the road playing exhibition games and we returned to Miyagi a month after the disaster. Even after our return, there were aftershocks of the intensity of six or stronger which I've never experienced before. Some of the players were so worried that they spent the night at the stadium.
The earthquake and tsunami did incredible damage. Here in Fukushima, we had the nuclear power plant accident too. As a professional baseball player, I was always thinking how we can make people smile through baseball, even if it was only that moment they watched us play. During the two years I played in Miyagi, I did not play as well as I had hoped to, and my regret of my poor performance was a big reason I chose to manage the Fukushima team.
Many MLB players sent messages of encouragement after the quake. At the same time, the enormity of the disaster was apparent.
The quake and tsunami were widely reported to the US. How did your friends and former MLB team mates react?
I played for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and Joe Maddon, who was the manager back then (currently managing the Chicago Cubs) asked one of the Japanese journalists, "Is Aki alright?" and also contacted me directly. I was happy that he thought of me and was concerned for my safety. It also made me realise the enormity of the disaster because my American friends and colleagues were so worried.
Many MLB players also send me messages through social media. I showed people their messages and told them, "See how so many people from abroad including these famous baseball players are praying for us. We're not alone!"
Were there any negative reactions based on misinformation?
When I was still with the Miyagi team, there weren't so many. However, when I moved to Fukushima, because the nuclear accident made Fukushima famous, there were damages caused by misinformation or harmful rumours. That is why I have great respect for the foreign players on our team who came to Fukushima despite the critical attitude in other countries. Foreign players who used to play for the Hopes as well as current team members from outside of Japan all like Fukushima very much. I'm sure they tell people back in their home country that "Fukushima is a lovely place and the nuclear power plant accident didn't concern us at all." Such positive comments made by foreigners is the best way to overcome misinformation or rumours.
Dividing Fukushima Prefecture into three areas and promoting their respective local colour and charm
You are in your fourth season as manager of the Hopes. What is the reason for your remaining in Fukushima?
Three distinct areas were combined to form Fukushima Prefecture, and I think the local colour of each area still remains strong. Not that they don't get along, but they have a friendly rivalry which helps them continue to evolve. That's what I like about Fukushima. Although the local team plays in an independent league, I wanted them to have a local hero they can be proud of. By having a common hero or team that they can all support, everyone will have something to be excited about. I want to stay here until I can help baseball and the team take root in Fukushima. It's not an easy task, but if we can move forward one step at a time instead of looking backwards, I'm sure the people of Fukushima will support us.
My role during the Tokyo 2020 games is to teach what I've experienced overseas
Two years from now, Olympic Baseball will take place at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium. Is there a particular contribution you wish to make during the Games based on your experience playing abroad?
I hope I can share my overseas experience somehow specifically during the Games. By that I mean not only my experience playing in the Major League but also in the Minor League as well. For example, most baseball fields in Japan have natural turf only in the outfield, but almost all the baseball fields overseas use natural turf in the infield area too. There are many gardening firms in Japan so with the cooperation of a few of those professionals, I am sure we can find a way to maintain the condition of the natural turf in the infield during the Games. It would be great if Japanese baseball fields could be improved to international standard as a result of the Olympic Games.
Note: The entire field of Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium will be covered with artificial turf by Tokyo 2020 Games.
Is there anything you wish to communicate to the world through the Olympic Games?
Fukushima is only an hour and 20 minutes away on the shinkansen bullet train, so I hope many visitors from abroad will make their way to Fukushima during the Games and experience the attractions of this area. I'm sure the people of Fukushima also want to become friends with them too.
What is the moment that you feel the power of sport?
Like music, sport has no boundaries so people from different countries who speak a different language can communicate with each other and enjoy playing together. That's what's great about sport. I've had no connection or relation with Fukushima before, but the people of Fukushima welcomed me because they got to know me well through baseball, and I think that is the power of sport. I want the people of Fukushima to embrace the wonderful attractions of sport, and I really hope that the Olympic Games will give them the opportunity to meet people from all over the world.
Although he is not a native of Fukushima Prefecture, Iwamura became a big fan of Fukushima and continues to support the area through baseball. It was apparent that he is seriously thinking about what needs be done to have the local people benefit from the Tokyo 2020 Games taking place in Fukushima. We count on him to help promote the attractions of Fukushima among visitors coming to Japan from abroad during the Tokyo 2020 Games.